Columbia Heights leaders weigh in on finding the delicate balance between existing community and economic development
By Dani Rizzo
As word spread of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, riots in the District blanketed the city in smoke and devastated the inner-city economy, businesses and property values.
The Columbia Heights neighborhood was badly burned. More than four decades later, this historic area is just beginning to recover.
What Columbia Heights does have, according to Ana Negoescu, a policy specialist at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), is a thriving immigrant and Latino population. The rich history and affordable housing created a neighborhood with genuine diversity and character.
But things are have changed. A new Metro stop, opened in 1999, sparked rapid development and soaring real estate prices. Some existing residents say the influx of upper- and middle-class residents moving into the neighborhood do help the local economy but also make it also nearly impossible for poorer residents to stay.
The face of the neighborhood is quickly changing. Lower-income Latinos and families are beginning to realize that the future of Columbia Heights may not include them.
According to a 2002 report by the Council of Latino Agencies, housing affordability and availability have declined precipitously in the District, especially for Latinos.
“People do want to stay but sometimes they just can’t take it anymore,” said Negoescu. “And that’s why a lot of families are moving out of the city to the suburbs, where they can afford to live in better conditions.”
Following the 1991 Mt. Pleasant disturbances, the D.C. Latino Civil Rights Task Force identified the lack of available, quality housing as one of the key problems that fueled the riots. Two decades later, community leaders across Columbia Heights recognize that affordable housing is still one of the most serious and overarching threats to the Latino community.
Community leaders and neighborhood advocacy organizations, such as CARECEN, are working together to promote the development of the D.C. immigrant and Latino community via advocacy and community housing initiatives.
Negoescu said that the main goal of the CARECEN housing program is to improve living conditions, access and affordability between low-income Latino and immigrant families.
Organizing tenant associations and engaging in housing education and advocacy are a few of the programs CARECEN provides on behalf of the ever-changing Columbia Heights Latino community.
Jim Graham, Ward 1 Councilmember, sees economic development as a piece of the solution in Columbia Heights but recognizes the continued need to improve the unacceptable poverty, unemployment and high school dropout rates, especially among the Latino and ethnic populations.
According to a 2009 press release, Graham said, “The lives of thousands of long time D.C. residents have been enriched by the vast economic development in Columbia Heights over the last 11 years. These improvements also have attracted thousands of new residents. It took the city nearly four decades since the 1968 riots to reinvest in this once vibrant community. We have seen great progress since 2000.”
While many residents do benefit from Columbia Height’s economic development and improvements, not everyone has seen or experienced such positive results.
Natalie Smith, an intern at CARECEN and American University student, said, “I just finished a project this past week where I had to follow up with residents CARECEN had helped to see if they were having any luck finding a job. I must have called over a hundred people… only four had found work.”
Negoescu, the policy specialist, said, “CARACEN knew since the beginning of the housing program that it’s almost impossible to avoid development but that it has to be done with our community’s needs in mind.”
Hope for the future
“I see immigration reform as a top priority,” Negoescu said. “Every year’s a rollercoaster, there’s hope and then there’s disappointment, then there’s hope and disappointment on this issue. It becomes frustrating at some point but I really hope that in the near future it [immigration reform] is going to happen.
The struggle in Columbia Heights is far from over, with the most difficult fights still to come. To create a neighborhood that balances affordable housing and development, advocacy groups say a strong organized community must be able to help control its future.
“I hope that these attacks against immigrant communities are going to stop,” Negoescu said. “Because at least here [Columbia Heights] it has been really tough. There’s this anti-immigrant sentiment growing around the country with no real reason. And it’s really unfortunate to see how it is destroying entire communities.”